MELBOURNE: High hopes of a meaningful Formula One title race will face their first test at the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday as five-times champion Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team seek to crush the pre-season optimism surrounding Ferrari.
Under different management and after a positive winter testing, Ferrari have arrived in Melbourne with a fast car and plenty of buzz, raising expectation of a genuine challenge to five years of Mercedes dominance.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff says the Ferrari threat is very real.
“Last year, we had to give it absolutely everything to come out on top. From what we have learned so far, this year will be even tougher,” he added.
“Judging from the performance in Barcelona (testing), it looks like we will have a proper fight on our hands in Melbourne.”
If Hamilton, winner of four of the last five championships, is feeling the pressure the Briton is doing well to conceal it.
A day before arriving Down Under on Monday, the 34-year-old indulged his new sky-diving hobby, jumping out of a plane over the Qatar desert.
Having won 11 of 21 races last season, another F1 title would put Hamilton one shy of Michael Schumacher’s record of seven and stir the debate about the greatest racer of all time.
The pressure is arguably heavier on the shoulders of German rival Sebastian Vettel, who won just five races last year and saw his challenge evaporate with a string of mistakes on track.
The four-times champion will bid for a third successive win at Albert Park’s season-opener, having foiled pole-sitter Hamilton amid a virtual safety car deployment last year.
“I feel Melbourne is the perfect place to start the championship,” said the 31-year-old German, now in his fifth season with the glamour team.
“I’ve got great memories of this track.”